‘These are not good times,’ Nile Rogers once wrote about another city in the midst of turmoil. He had the near-bankrupt, socially turbulent New York of the 1970s in his sightlines, but given his more recent cultural renaissance this side of the pond, it could just as easily have been London, 2017 he was singing of. The city is still reeling from its most recent terrorist outrage, a killing spree which left eight dead and scores more injured just the weekend past, when news starts filtering through of a terrible fire in a west London tower block. Beyond the rolling news captions and enhanced bag searches in certain public fora, it is hard to gauge how, or even if, this constant diet of sectarianism and tragedy will enter the wider political bloodstream. The snap General election is still some weeks away, and the Corbyn effect has yet to manifest beyond its twitter heartlands. In the event, a perfect storm of perceived Tory mismanagement, of their campaign, of the nation’s security needs, above all of the Grenfell Tower disaster and its ongoing fallout, leads to a spectacular narrowing of the polls and a hung parliament. But that unexpected result is still, for many, a distant pipe dream the day I meet one of this city’s foremost chroniclers to talk, amongst other things, books, blackness and britishness.
Oddly enough it’s when ‘britishness’is entered as the concluding element of that triptych, the laptop autocorrect function modifies that to ‘brutishness’. As if summoning from its atavistic circuitry a corporate algorithm of disdain. And in these times of reinvigorated ethno-nationalism in its full throttle hedge-fund, asset-stripping, disaster capitalist mode, that is perhaps something to be wary of. A minor tic, arguably, but a detail nonetheless in a growing inventory of presumed Brexit ‘incompatibilities’.
This is all too familiar terrain for Courttia Newland, novelist, Londoner, and a leading light of British literary fiction for the past two decades, ever since his breakout novel, ‘The Scholar’, announced him on the lilywhite canvas of UK publishing back when people took Blair at his word as a ‘pretty straight guy’ (!). Twenty years, and a lot can happen in that time, including fatherhood and the fallibility that comes with knowing there will always be a moment of failure. How much of that shift is reflected in his more recent output, in particular the (2013) novel, ‘The Gospel According to Cane’?
‘There’s things in that novel I could only write as a father. The concern, the constant anxiety, but also the utterly unbounded love a parent has for their child. All of that’s in there. I mean I really worry for my kids. Take my son, he’s a really sweet kid, and I want it to stay that way, but I know how the streets are, how easily and quickly they can get to you, and it scares me sometimes. Of course I want him to be able to carry himself, to not get bullied, but I don’t want him to lose that sweetness, that openness.’
Is there a marked change from the environment he remembers growing up in, and the one, for instance, that his son is encountering now?
‘There’s the potential for things to just escalate so quickly now. Something apparently trivial can rapidly become the source of a life threatening feud. Although to be honest there’s always been an element of that. It’s like when I first started out on the literary path, I was so road. When I think back to how I was at that time, to how I’d present myself, come across in public, I can hardly believe it. But it’s like anything else, you get used to it, and you develop ways of dealing with the demands placed on you. Then again you’ve got to learn on your feet, and learn fast. That much is true whatever era you’re talking about.’
That sounds every bit the ethos embodied by successive waves of immigrants, and their British-born children. Is that cultural versatility also where the words come from?
‘To be honest, I was an MC before I was an author, so I was always playing around with words anyway. Well, lyrics. And most of them had to do with local runnin’s, so it wasn’t exactly a giant leap from doing what I was doing anyway to applying some of those skills to a related art form, but oddly enough one that rarely goes out of its way to make those links. So the stories were there, as was the public performative element. The challenge was to revitalise what was on the page. Of course that’s not the whole story though. When I first started reading Chester Himes, or Donald Goines, I couldn’t believe what was in front of me. Brilliantly hard boiled, funny, unapologetic accounts of black working class life and love. And loss. But that’s the thing. Look at Goines, a great writer, but he truly lived what he wrote as well, including all the really dark stuff, the criminality and whatnot, and that was never going to be a recipe for a long life. Some stuff happened in my own life at that time, and it just made me stop and think, ‘No, I want to live. I’ve got stories to tell, and I want to be around to tell them.’
That sense of looking forward, or at least outward, but still living intensely in the present, also pervades ‘The Gospel’. At one point, Beverley, the central character, seems to indicate a similar train of thought when she wonders, ‘Are we just a fading buzz in a larger ear?’ Would it be fair to describe ‘The Gospel’, in its formalist designation – there are no individual chapters, the narrative revels in its honeycomb buzz of cultural references and styles, and its temporality is called into deliberate question by the kind of jump cuts Walter Benjamin would have approved of – as an example of black modernism?
‘That’s a long question, bro!’ (laughs).
True. Just getting warmed up. Probably just a long winded way of saying it’s not often you find Joe Harriott (‘Jaipur’), Dennis Brown and Rabindranath Tagore sharing the same cultural firmament. Even less so in a British story. Shades of the great Sam Selvon, perhaps?
‘Good to hear that, bro. That’s genuinely humbling. The funny thing is, there’s another edition which does have chapter breaks and in that sense is more conventionally arranged, so I suppose it’s fair to say some people remain sceptical of the whole modernist angle. As for the eclecticism, well, London’s always been made up of many cultures, and you know, even when it’s trying not to be, it’s basically an open place. It’s like when we were younger, and there were kids at school who were part of the hooligan element at Loftus Road, so we never had any problems from them. Ultimately we were all from the same ends. It was only when visiting fans used to mob the area that something might happen. So while it’s not always a happy fit, most of the time cultural difference isn’t a problem. But also, there’s always been quite a few of us from the area, from school, or neighbouring estates, doing our thing culturally. There’s me, Noel (Clarke), and a load of others, and we’ve always been supportive around each other, so that helps too. It helps build things up, and I guess when you’re doing things yourself, you don’t worry too much about what anyone else is getting up to. In fact there’s probably a part of you that welcomes it.’
And with that, sadly, our time’s up. The hours, as with ‘The Gospel’, silkily absorbed into an all-too-brief ether. For another time then the prodigious output – six novels, two edited collections and counting, as well as prolific journalism – its cross-generic ambitions, the earlier incarnation as a sound man, and as befits any true scholar, the long term pedagogy, as writer in residence, creative writing guru and all round genial literary figure. Ultimately, though, it’s the words which are the first to breach any attempt to impose a strict time limit. Their own lyrical uproar. Definitely not last orders.
‘And I was there, in the shadow of cane, spreadeagled in her web, darkness that might have verged on complete if it wasn’t for the gleam of the quartz moon…I smiled as I swung in the noir that enveloped me, I embraced blackness within and without and I let go, content just to hang, and be.’
Except it’s daylight outside and the city, still living in its brokenness, this make believe of djinns and despair, yet has the power to draw its lost souls near. In its existential howl, choked off by the smoke from the tower, its true nature revealed. An empire of dirt, and as ever, its dissidents caked in grime.